When Sam and Kathy Harrell recently moved into a new home in Ennis' Oak Creek subdivision, Kathy ran across her son Graham's favorite poster from his childhood days.
It was the shape of things to come.
At the bottom of the huge picture of Joe Montana, the fourth-grader and future Texas Tech record-setting quarterback had stuck a home-made label that read: "Graham Harrell – the next Joe Montana."
"I remember thinking, 'Bless his heart, he thinks he can play in the NFL!' I didn't want to burst his bubble, but I kind of felt a little hurt for him," Kathy Harrell said, unconsciously putting her hand up to her heart.
That was a dozen years ago.
Little Graham Harrell is all grown up, standing within reach of that boyhood goal.
He's the nation's leading passer with 393.4 yards per game, moving into fourth place on the NCAA career passing yardage list with 13,829 yards. He has set school career marks in touchdown passes (117) and career touchdowns responsible for (129) and is the nation's active leader in both categories.
The Walter Camp Football Foundation's National Offensive Player of the Week, Graham Harrell accounted for six touchdowns in Saturday's win in Kansas, leading the Red Raiders to a 63-21 win.
Long-time family friend Bud White of Ennis has watched his adopted grandson's football career with pride.
"He's so underrated, it just makes me furious," White said with a chuckle that belied the intensity of his words. "Of course, I'm biased. … He's my Grahamster."
White was in College Station three weeks ago when Graham Harrell scored to win the day with 59 seconds to go.
He cites Graham's modest demeanor as one of his best assets, right up there with the eye and the arm of what could be one of college football's best products ever to go into the draft.
When a trash-talking Aggie fan sore about the loss bitterly started in on Harrell, Bud White got his attention.
"I looked him in the eye and said, 'You're talking about my grandson,' " he recalled, remembering with a grin the Aggie's flustered and apologetic admission that Harrell was the best college ball player he'd ever seen.
Not that any of the Harrells are slouches. Winning at football's a celebrated and hard-earned blessing – but a familiar one – in the Harrell household.
Dad Sam coaches the Ennis High School Lions, where each of his three boys cut their teeth on the pigskin – and where he coached three teams with three different quarterbacks to state football championship glory in 2000, 2001 and 2004.
Oldest son Zach coaches receivers at Denton-Ryan High School and youngest son Clark plays football at Abilene Christian.
"Every week, I have four teams to keep up with," Kathy Harrell said.
Good thing she was a cheerleader in high school.
"I've been a cheerleader my whole life – I'm still a cheerleader. I just don't wear the short skirt," she said with a grin.
Jerry Maguire moments
Already technically graduated, former Ennis Lion Graham Harrell is currently enrolled in graduate-level courses at Texas Tech while breaking Red Raider records.
Meanwhile, the annual football clock is ticking louder and louder. Marking its time, a succession of sports agents have found their way into the Harrell family scene, hoping that maybe Graham Harrell will become one of the stars in their firmament, perhaps even the brightest one.
Red carpets have come rolling in from all directions.
"Numerous ones have contacted us, but we didn't want to meet with them all," Sam said.
"The first time someone called and started talking to us, I thought this was crazy – it was surreal," Kathy said.
In the Metroplex for a Cowboys game for some other client or prospects, an agent will call to say they'd be in town for the Friday night lights of an Ennis Lions football game.
In many ways, many of the agents have come across much like the big screen prototype, Jerry Maguire.
Not too "salesman-y," if they know what's good for them in a town where an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure.
Kathy said she's had to work on being guarded – easy-going, the Travis Elementary reading recovery teacher's first instinct is to trust everyone.
"I assume off the bat that people are sincere," she said ruefully.
Together, the Harrells maintain an attitude of tempered enthusiasm. It would be easy, they say, to get star-struck by the flattery of it all – and easy to focus on short-term rewards instead of Graham's long-term prospects, which must include a post-game plan.
What they're looking for is someone with integrity, someone who has their son's future – not just a possibly-fleeting NFL career – at heart.
"The average lifespan of an NFL career is three years," Sam said. "He has to be prepared for that."
"The little span of an NFL career is not reality. No matter how good you are, it's going to end," Kathy said. "There's going to be life after football."
THE way to see America
The middle child of the Harrells' three boys, Graham has demonstrated a strong aptitude for being able to negotiate his way without a lot of guidance. That's a character trait that should help him in the NFL, his parents hope out loud as they thumb through glossy presentation books that feature their son as the star.
"The 2008-09 Quarterback Market" gives them the scoop on what the NFL has going on, right now, this week.
Who's a quarterback, who's on the bench. Blue is for rookies, red for free agents.
Who's about to retire.
Who's a rising star.
"Preparing for the NFL" is a personalized roadmap from December 2008 to May 2009. It takes a prophetic tone.
"Come January, Graham will embark on a wild, four-month journey that will culminate with him being selected in the 2009 NFL Draft. Before the end of his collegiate eligibility arrives, Graham should begin to prepare for the next stage of his football career," the caption under a picture of a bearded Texas Tech No. 6 Graham Harrell reads.
The path to the draft is care- fully metered out: There are the critical bowl games of January where the recruiting starts in earnest; Graham is expected to head out on a whirlwind winter tour.
There's the NFL Pre-Draft Combine in Indianapolis, a series of meetings for draftees from the end of February to the beginning of March.
There, Graham will be subjected to everything from drills to drug tests to the fast-moving Wonderlic test, designed to assess his aptitude for learning and problem-solving. NFL quarterbacks need to be able to think on their feet and then some.
He'll return to Texas Tech to work out. Come early April, after NFL owners' meetings, a handful of teams are likely to bring Graham to their cities so he can check them out and interview with various team officials.
Media interviews in mid-April will show his ability to – once again – think on his feet.
It all leads up to one thing on April 25 and 26.
There, his agents will go to battle for him in the war rooms of the NFL to procure a deal, so he can use May to transition into his new team and new home, along with the other rookies.
If nothing else, it's certainly a fabulous way to see America.
Sam and Kathy Harrell have never been ones to speculate on their son's NFL prospects, preferring to cautiously enjoy the blessings he has reaped at each and every step of his football career.
"I know his passion for the game and I know he's worked really hard, so I assumed he'd play in college because of that," Kathy said.
But being courted by agents and hearing that general managers are watching their son's last college games?
"I call it a blessing; Kathy calls it surreal," Sam said with a smile.
The acorn doesn't fall far from the tree. The same modest, measured approach Sam Harrell takes when he's asked about the Ennis Lions' successes has been picked up like a sure-thing pass by his son, who's not known for talking smack.
"He doesn't have an air of 'I'm all that,' " Sam said.
There was the spring game, Graham stood with coaches, patiently signing autographs into the wee hours from around 8 p.m. to after midnight.
It's enough to give a cheerleading mom pause.
"Seeing him sign autographs, seeing so many kids wear his jersey – it makes me a little nervous … he's just my little boy," Kathy Harrell said Monday night over salad at Wendy's on Ennis Avenue.
"It's exciting, but, when you put people on a pedestal, they're going to get criticized and, even if it's favorable attention, that adoration makes me a little uneasy," she said.
But that uneasiness takes a back seat on the brand new big screen TV in the Harrells' new home, where college and high school games have been front and center, but broadcast NFL games hold a whole new significance.
Meanwhile, on the cusp of NFL Draft greatness, Graham Harrell remains a good ol' boy from Ennis, Texas, whose favored ways to pass time range from shooting hoops to pest control patrol at a golf course in Lubbock, where he and his buddies hunt rabbits with blow darts.
"He's leading the nation in passing calls and he's talking about hunting rabbits on the golf course," Sam said with a chuckle. "That's just Graham."
Editor's Note: ESPN College Gameday will broadcast Saturday from the Texas Tech campus. The show will air prior to Texas Tech's showdown with in-state rival No. 1 Texas. Saturday's game marks the highest combined rankings of Tech and an opponent to play at Jones AT&T Stadium. Both teams are 8-0 overall and 4-0 in Big 12 Conference play. Texas Tech defeated No. 18 Kansas, 63-21, in Lawrence on Saturday, while Texas knocked off No. 8 Oklahoma State, 28-24, in Austin.
E-mail J. Louise Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org